Thirteen anti-slavery activists in Mauritania have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to fifteen years in prison in a suspected crackdown on anti-slavery activity.
The court found the 13 people, all members of the human rights group, Initiative pour la Resurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste (IRA) guilty on August 19, 2016 of counts including “rebellion, use of violence, attacks against the government, armed assembly and membership of an unrecognised organisation.” Three of the accused were sentenced to 15 years each, eight to 5 years and while the remaining two were given a two years each.
The judgment has been condemned by human rights organisations as an attempt to intimidate anti-slavery campaigners.
The activists were without lawyers at the time of their sentencing as their lawyers boycotted the sitting on August 17 in protest of an alleged torture of their clients and unfair proceedings.
The IRA leaders including vice presidents, Brahim Ramdane and Diop Amadou Tidjane as well as Secretary for External Relations, Balla Touré, were arrested in their homes between June and early July after the government accused them of being involved in violent protests against the state by evicted locals in Ksar, a slum community in the capital, Nouakchott.
The convicted activists have denied this and said although their organisation openly opposed the eviction exercise of the settlers in Ksar, they were not part of the demonstration. They have described their sentencing as “crackdown on their anti-slavery activities.”
As slavery implicates both the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, the MFWA equally considers the sentencing of the anti-slavery activists as an attempt to restrict freedom of expression and association and also to frustrate the work of anti-slavery activists in Mauritania. Although Mauritania officially abolished slavery in 1981 and it criminalised in 2007, modern-day slavery is still practiced and widespread in Mauritania where members of the Haratin or “slave caste” are forced by their masters to do menial, unpaid jobs as cattle herders and domestic servants.
Last year, the government passed a law that doubled prison terms for practicing slavery. In November 2015, after Mauritania’s Universal Periodic Review, the state accepted recommendations to promote human rights and increase awareness-raising campaigns on the prohibition of slavery. The state also accepted to expand public awareness campaigns against slavery. Critics however say there has been little practical commitment to ending the menace, as few offenders have been prosecuted, despite the open and widespread practice of slavery. The state has however consistently been hostile to anti-slavery activists and the recent sentencing of the 13 anti-slavery activists is proof of the state’s unwillingness to end slavery.
We call on the authorities in Mauritania to release the IRA activists and encourage dialogue and collaboration in the fight against slavery.